The removal of Joe Schlaerth as news director of Channel 4 Wednesday might have caused some Western New Yorkers to ask, Joe Who?
But his departure from the station could have a significant impact on the presentation of local news.
That is why inside the CBS affiliate, the end of Schlaerth’s Channel 4 career was greeted with a mixture of celebration and concern.
The celebration occurred because Schlaerth was not a popular boss. That became clear when the LIN station conducted focus groups about station management in 2013 and Schlaerth was given very low grades. I’m told some staffers celebrated by bringing in pizza and brownies.
The concern was over the uncertainty his removal brings to a station whose newscasts are dull and stodgy, primary reasons it is losing the demographic battle for viewers ages 18-49 and 25-54 to Channel 2.
Schlaerth was a Channel 4 lifer. He worked at the station for more than 30 years, beginning as an intern and rising through the ranks to assignment editor, executive news producer and eventually news director 10 years ago.
The culture of the station was in his blood and he was viewed as unlikely to make major changes because of it. He was named news director by another Channel 4 lifer, Chris Musial, after Musial was promoted to general manager. Musial was replaced a year ago by Rene LaSpina, who arrived with a reputation of being a tough, bottom-line oriented boss and in a year has pretty much validated that opinion. LaSpina, who declined to return telephone calls, gave Schlaerth a year to fix his management skills and the station’s ratings and then let him go.
Now that Schlaerth is gone, all bets are off. Most of the people celebrating Wednesday realize nobody is safe now.
The new interim news director, Peter Jacobus, has held the same job in many markets and has been a news consultant. According to a Google search, Jacobus and LaSpina worked together as news director and general manager at WPTY in Memphis, Tenn.
Jacobus comes in with a fresh outlook, which means no one is safe, including news veterans at the station that Schlaerth was unlikely to touch.
And that’s what is cause for concern inside the station.
Jacobus isn’t from Western New York. That means he also probably doesn’t realize how much this community hates change.
That may make it easier for him to suggest big changes after he gets to know Western New York better.
Of course, that presumes an interim news director will be the one to make the decisions. Perhaps he’ll be the one to help hire the next news director who will make those calls. I’m told that LaSpina told her staff that the next news director will be a “people person.” That is an area where Schlaerth clearly was lacking and something that sources said led to several staffers leaving.
Schlaerth made some very good hires recently, with anchor Diana Fairbanks, meteorologist Todd Santos, morning anchor Teresa Weakley, reporter-anchor Brittni Smallwood and reporter-anchor Lou Raguse immediately coming to mind. Fairbanks, who was viewed as Jacquie Walker’s eventual replacement as lead female anchor, has since left the station.
And he made some weak hires, sportscaster Lauren Brill immediately coming to mind. She wasn’t ready for this market. Hiring Brill was unfair to her – and to viewers.
He stayed the course with Walker, Don Postles and meteorologist Don Paul as the lead anchors, with sports director Steve Vesey joining the team two years ago when John Murphy left to work full time for the Buffalo Bills.
Unlike Musial and Schlaerth, Jacobus and LaSpina have no reason to be loyal to anybody.
However, there is another player in town that Channel 4 just might have to consider before making any big decisions.
With E.W. Scripps recently taking over as Channel 7’s owner, the third-rated news station is looking for ways to give viewers another reason to give its newscast another look.
Anyone who might leave Channel 4 just might look valuable to Channel 7 just for their name recognition.
The only thing surprising about Schlaerth’s removal was the timing. Some insiders were asking, “Why now?” It came two months after the May demographics arrived and about a month after Scripps took over Channel 7.
There is no direct link, but you almost wonder if the answer might partly have been LIN’s fear of Channel 7’s recovery plans.